Thursday, April 27, 2017

Lincoln Is Still the Best Thing Built By Ford [on Neil Young Journeys]

Re-posted on April 27, 2017, in memory of Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

In the last three years the number of films made with or about (and occasionally by) Neil Young has mounted up to the extent that is difficult to remember which song was in which film. Parallel to an overdose of NY album releases - marked by two recent, and rather disappointing, Crazy Horse sessions - camera seems to love this Canadian singer/songwriter, still, at 66, a restless rocker in search of a Woodstock dream. Also, the age, 66, resembles the golden number American popular music and the cross country highway of freedom in anything from Nat King Cole to Dennis Hopper.

The aforementioned filmic portrayals are: in 2009 Young was given his entry to the American Masters series in Don't Be Denied. Unlike Bob Dylan film from the same program, which had Martin Scorsese’s name in the credit, Don't Be Denied was denied soon after its initial broadcast and went into oblivion. On the same year, Jonathan Demme filmed the electric storm of a NY tour in Trunk Show. In 2010 the electric solo album, Le Noise, with its murky, elegiac lyricism turned into a 40 minute-long YouTube video, shot in a beautiful L.A. mansion with a feeling of LSD all throughout the film. And now, Demme’s fourth film with NY (after Complex Sessions, 1994; Heart of Gold, 2006 and Trunk Show) seems in better shape and Younger than all the recent efforts.

Massey Hall [from Wiki]
Aside from the streets of Neil Young’s hometown and roads diverging from there, the main setting is an old, reddish brown brick building in Toronto, known as Massey Hall, where Young first appeared as a solo artist, and before that “the greatest jazz concert ever” took place there in 1953, when five beboppers (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach) occupied the stage and tore it apart.

Forty years on since the historic NY solo concert, a return to the place becomes the backbone of a cinematic journey through the past. More than being a geographical trip, it’s a musical one.

Alternating between group work and solo performances, this time Neil Young does something which, with exception of Dead Man’s soundtrack, he has never tried before: a solo electric and highly amplified concert, an idea derived from Le Noise.

Demme’s relationship with Young is more one of a spontaneous nature rather than being carefully planned as in Demme’s early rockumentary Stop Making Sense (made in 1984, about a Talking Heads concert). In the last 20 years or so, Demme has humbly acted as NY’s videographer, and for instance here most of the conversations between the filmmaker and the rocker take place in Neil Young’s huge, bio diesel-fueled Cadillac, as if Demme has recently discovered the cinema of Kiarostami and its merits of four-wheeled minimalism. One can even argue that keeping the camera on Neil Young’s face, during the performance of Ohio (a song about four protester students killed in the Kent State University in 1970), instead of moving it around and inserting shots of him playing guitar, is like extreme facial study of Kiarostami in his “reaction film” Shirin which, deliberately, omits the “action.”

As Young, with an unbeatable ardour and drive, is rewriting Ohio on stage, Demme’s camera, so intrigued by the performance, gets stoned and mesmerized by the songwriter. For another song, Demme puts the camera under the microphone, so when Young is singing, one can count his teeth and by using wide angle lens, the lines in his face look as broad as the horizon line in a John Ford western.

The film is split between scenes of singing and then scenes of driving. When Young is behind the wheel, he is a humorous old man (now he is the Old Man!) with the simplicity of a farmer and amiability of a father who has never been out of his small town, but as soon as he swaps the wheel with the guitar, the persona of the man drastically changes. He barely opens his eyes; he dances around like an Indian in a sacred ritual (there as in Indian statue on the stage); deep lines in his face turn deeper and that Neil Young gloom, that lingering sense of solitude and melancholia comes to the foreground. As soon as his guitar is plugged in, his wire with the outside world is disconnected - no wonder there is no shot of the audience throughout the film.

Five minutes into the film, the mysteries and hidden meaning of the Ambulance Blues - a song that Young recorded for his seminal LP On the Beach – are explained and demystified. When poetic allusions of the lyrics find an equivalent in the real world, they immediately lose their magic. Demme soon worn this technique out.

One of the parallel journeys in the film is the drug journey, told in a new song named Hitchhiker which chronologically names various drugs as various stages of Neil Young’s life – from hash to cocaine, and from there to paranoia of On the Beach. The harrowing sincerity of the song and its wild performance is supported by a shot I discussed earlier, the one taken from below the microphone, where Young’s saliva on the camera lens makes the whole scene blurred and brutally rockish.

Shots from this sort have a contradictory presence. On one hand they imply the intimacy and closeness of the subject, as if a webcam is used for filming the rocker, and on the other hand, they alienate us from the performer by breaking the established line between the performance and the spectator, as seen in many other musical and musical documentaries. These shots cancel the romantic notion of the singer, as the lonely figure on stage - a statute whose body language is the emblem of the hidden meaning of any song he performs - by breaking it down to pieces made of sweat and saliva.

No matter how new the idea of the solo electric concert, or how fresh the performed songs, they all seems like variations of the same old NY song which its main theme is journey, travelling through time and places, and since it is essentially alluding to the American notion of trip and self-discovery, facts about cars, highway numbers, gas stations and burger stops on the road are never left unnoticed. This is the kind of journey that before Young Jack Kerouac undertook. Their Road has something for the spiritual, as well as the material. The passion of a wondering soul is as important as the model of the car he drives. As a teenage in Iran who didn't know about the existence of Lincoln cars by Ford company, when Young was singing “and my Lincoln is still the best thing built by Ford,” it was more about John Ford and his Young Abe Lincoln, the spiritual.

John Ford on the set of Young Mr. Lincoln
Ford's Lincoln

Neil Young Journeys' last shot is one of a bridge, one of the most-repeated elements in NY's poetry (also the title of one of his songs from Time Fades Away), as the transitional moment of a life or journey, something that like Kafla's Die Brücke tells the story of its existence and its breaking down. Before this final shot many other songs are decoded throughout the film that I can hardly call it innovative or something worth trying. But if any film has one, and only one scene in which the audience are emotionally (which means sonically and visually) hit hard, then the film has a fair chance of being honorably remembered. Examples are far too many, like a candid shot of a pair of shoes on the pavement when Ravi Shankar begin to play in Monterrey Pop. For Demme, that vital outburst of the inner emotions onto the image is when Young plays his guitar without touching it. He just walks around it, like a matador examining the raging bull, and makes the sound. After half a century playing that instrument, Young has developed a mutual relationship with a lifeless object: They listen to each other. It is an image no less important than the image of someone walking on water or landing the moon.

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